How the NASCAR playoffs look now heading into Richmond, Bristol

The penultimate race of the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is here for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN). Kevin Harvick won last Sunday’s Southern 500 and automatically advanced to the second round. 15 drivers are left fighting for 11 spots with four of them going home.

Right now, Clint Bowyer (-0), Cole Custer (-3), Matt DiBenedetto (-17) and Ryan Blaney (-17) are on the outside looking in. They have two races to get themselves into the playoff picture to advance to the Round of 12. But, can they?

It starts at the Richmond (VA) Raceway for a primetime under the lights shootout. It ends next Saturday night on the high banks of the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.

The Toyota’s are the heavy favorites entering this weekend with them sweeping the action at Richmond in each of the last two years to go along with seven trips to victory lane in the last nine starts on the .75-mile D-Shaped Virginia oval.

Kyle Busch is winless this season and has just one victory since the end of June 2019, but he swept the two races in 2018 and has five top two finishes in his last nine starts on the short track. It would be fitting for him to end his winless drought on Saturday night and stamp his name into the next round of the playoffs. But, he is without his crew chief in Adam Stevens who was suspended for this race following a lug nut violation in Darlington. How much does that affect him? His cars haven’t been rolling off the truck with speed, so they adjust it as the race goes on. Will an interim crew chief be able to get on the same page as Busch? He’s +7 right now.

Martin Truex Jr. also has to be among the favorites to beat. He swept both races at Richmond last year. In fact, he’s won the last four races in the Virginia Commonwealth with winning the playoff race last October at Martinsville as well as the spring race on the .526-mile short track this past June. Can he make it 5-for-5? He wrapped up the regular season with three runner-ups, five third place runs and a fourth place effort over the final 10 races. He was 22nd last Sunday in Darlington but that’s because of a late race dust up with Chase lliott with 14 to go. Truex, swept both stages and led a race-high 196 laps too.

Denny Hamlin has six wins overall in 2020 and a third place finish in each of the last three years in the Richmond playoff races. He’s finished outside the top six just once in his last eight starts there.

JGR went 1-2-3-4 across the finish line in this race last September and should be tough to beat again a year later.

RICHMOND, VA – APRIL 21: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Flavor Vote Toyota, celebrates by doing a burnout after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 21, 2018 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

If they are going to be challenged, the only three I think that can is Harvick (8 top 5’s in last 11 Richmond starts) or two Team Penske drivers in Brad Keselowski (11 top 11 finishes in last 12 tries) or Joey Logano (4 top 4’s in last 6 Richmond starts).

Keselowski, was the top non Toyota last year and has a top 11 finish in all but five races this season. Logano, was first and second respectively at Richmond in 2017 and has had all his Richmond success in the spring race actually. He was 14th and 11th the last two playoff races there, but without a spring race this season, could it help him?

Harvick has eight wins now during the pandemic and heading to a track to where he has nine top seven finishes, eight of which being in the top five, in his last 11 starts.

Other than that, it’s slim pickings.

Elliott has just two top five finishes in nine Richmond starts. William Byron and Alex Bowman each have no top 10 finishes each in four starts on the track with Hendrick. Kurt Busch was 11th in each of the last two Richmond spring races and 18th in both playoff races.

I feel like Truex wins and gets the second guaranteed playoff spot. Hamlin, is already +54 and that advantage grows to where he can race comfortably at Bristol. Same for Logano (+27) and Keselowski (+22). They should be good.

Bowman (+19), Elliott (+12) and Byron (+9) haven’t had the best speed at Richmond, but they’re hot on the season. Elliott, should have seven top 10’s in his last eight starts. Bowman, has three straight top 10’s now and Byron three consecutive top fives including four top 10’s in his last five tries. Solid top 15’s would be good for them on Saturday night.

Austin Dillon (+10) is also good in my opinion. He was runner-up last Sunday. He was sixth in Richmond last spring and sixth at Bristol this past spring.

Kyle can get a solid top 10 to make me feel really comfortable with the top 10 in points right now. Kurt, Almirola, Bowyer and Custer will have a fight for them.

Almirola, has two top 10’s in his last five starts on the season but Bowyer has three. Almirola has three finishes of 15th or worse in his last four Richmond starts while Bowyer has four straight top 10’s.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see Bowyer move up to 11th in points and Busch fall to 12th with Almirola a close 13th. Custer, is a rookie.

DiBenedetto and Blaney struggle at Richmond. Blaney, has no top 15 finishes in eight tries.

Then, it’s to Bristol. DiBenedetto is good there and would likely need to win. Blaney is also good with 100 or more laps led in three of his last five starts there too but also has only one top five in 10 tries including just four top 10’s in that span as well. Kurt and Kyle have won three of the last six Bristol races including Kurt having won six times himself overall.

Almirola, hasn’t had a top five at Bristol since 2014. Bowyer, has eight top 10 finishes in his last 10 at Bristol including a runner-up this past spring and a pair of seventh’s last year. Byron, was eighth in May while Bowman was fifth and eighth respectively just in 2018. Dillon, again finished sixth back in May 31.

I can see the new four getting bounced now in the opening round being – Almirola, Custer, Blaney and DiBenedetto.

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